There’s an argument for using no reference at all. If you train your memory, you can work entirely from your imagination, which helps particularly in the development stages of the idea.
And there are pros and cons of using traditional drawn studies of a model. Above is a charcoal mirror study of me posing in a pirate costume and the resulting painting.
There are also benefits of working from photo reference, especially when you’re dealing with kids, animals, or anything in movement. When I needed to paint a picture of a kid playing tug-of-war with a dinosaur, the first drawing I did from my head didn’t have the conviction that came later when I actually staged and photographed the action.
Photography has its benefits, but also its pitfalls. Copying a photo too much can drain the mythic magic from your painting. Photographic effects such as depth of field and motion blur belong in some images, but not in others.
Everyone has to develop a reference strategy that suits their goals. I’m a pragmatist on this issue: the desired results govern the choices, and I’ve used every kind of reference.
This meaty topic is the subject of a six page workshop that I wrote for the June, 2011 issue of ImagineFX magazine. You can pick up a copy at the local newsstand, or visit their website. The accompanying DVD has a couple of my short videos and lots of examples.
This topic is also explored in Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist.
Tug-of-war image from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara
Pirate image is from Dinotopia Lost by Alan Dean Foster
Previous posts on GurneyJourney
Acting it Out: (Tug of War)
Rackham on Photo Reference
Using Photo Reference (32 comments)
Model to Mermaid
P.S. I've just received word that the painter Jeffrey Catherine Jones passed away this morning from emphysema. R.I.P. There's more information at the blog Muddy Colors . Jeff was an acquaintance and fellow artist I had known for twenty years or so, and I'll miss Jeff's unique perspective.